Things we learned from the 2021/22 Olympic figure skating season

From Nathan Chen's triumph to a golden double for Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the figure skating season was full of memorable moments from some of the sport's brightest stars. We highlight a few.

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Some 156 days after the Olympic figure skating season kicked off in full at Skate America in Las Vegas, the World Championships wrapped up on Sunday (27 March) in Montpellier, France, signalling the finish of another Olympic quad.

Over five months, three continents and one stop at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, it was marked by memorable moments - both on and off the ice.

Here we will focus on the ice, where Nathan Chen rebounded from disappointment at PyeongChang 2018 to capture the Olympic title; Hanyu Yuzuru continued to show the skating and spirit that has made him a global icon; Sui Wenjing and Han Cong won gold for a nation; and Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron finished the year not with one podium-topping performance... but two of them.

While the women's singles results in Beijing remain provisional, Anna Shcherbakova won the Olympic title with a riveting two-quad free skate - and at Worlds, Sakamoto Kaori didn't waver in her favourite status, becoming the sixth Japanese woman to claim a world gold.

Russian and Belarusian skaters would not make the trip to Montpellier, having been excluded by the International Skating Union earlier in the month, changing the landscape most drastically in the women's and pairs disciplines.

And did we mention first-of-a-kind wins for Uno Shoma and the pairs team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier?

Here are our takeaways.

Men: Chen's Olympic moment realised

It wasn't a fairytale start for Chen, who finished with a bronze at the aforementioned Skate America behind teammate Vincent Zhou and Japan's Uno Shoma. A week after, he won gold at Skate Canada International, but the writing was on the wall: He was switching back to two previous programs he felt more connected to.

Those would help him capture a sixth national title in January, just two weeks after Hanyu, the reigning and two-time Olympic champion, had won his sixth in Japan, beating both Uno and Kagiyama Yuma. But Hanyu made clear after his Japan title: He was going to Beijing to try the never-done-before quadruple Axel.

While that Axel attempt fell short (more on that below), the moment in Beijing belonged to Chen: He skated crisply across his two individual programs, breaking into a smile midway through his Olympic free skate as he realised he would become the seventh American man - and first since Evan Lysacek at Vancouver 2010 - to win the men's title.

"You can't imagine how it feels," Chen, 22, said of his Olympic-winning moment. "This means the world to me. I have the family connection [to Beijing, where his mother was born]. It's amazing to have this opportunity to do it here."

Japan's Kagiyama and Uno would go silver-bronze, marking the second Games in a row that the Japanese men would win two individual medals.

Showman Shoma: World champ at last

Fast forward five weeks and both Olympic champions - Chen and Hanyu - would sit Worlds out due to injury, and it would be Uno who would step up to win gold in Montpellier, his first world title, joining Hanyu and Takahashi Daisuke as Japanese world champs on the men's side.

Uno dedicated the Worlds win to coach (and Olympic medallist) Stéphane Lambiel, whom he had partnered with in 2019 after a disastrous outing at the French Grand Prix that left him wondering if he should leave the sport.

Kagiyama would claim his second consecutive world silver, while the American Zhou got some consolation with bronze after being forced to miss the Olympic Games individual event having tested positive for Covid-19.

Women: Shcherbakova, Sakamoto claim highest honours

The six-stop Grand Prix Series was outright dominated by the Russian women, with Shcherbakova joined by teammates Alexandra Trusova and Kamila Valieva atop the podium. Sakamoto claimed her home Grand Prix at the NHK Trophy, continuing to establish herself as one who could disrupt an all-Russian podium in Beijing.

No one could foresee the circumstances which unfolded during Beijing, however, though Valieva would lead after the short program. The free skate, however, belonged to Shcherbakova, who landed two quadruple jumps and didn't put a blade wrong in her "Lacrimosa" free skate. The 17-year-old backed up her 2021 world title with an Olympic gold, followed by Trusova, who had landed five quads in the free, and Sakamoto.

Valieva faltered in the free, finishing fourth.

The ISU's decision to exclude Russian skaters meant two of the three Olympic medallists from Beijing were not present in Montpellier, and Sakamoto made it her show: She led after the short program and never looked back in the free skate.

Sakamoto set new personal best scores across the board in a dominant performance. There were no signs of pressure on the Japanese skater, who said afterwards: "I knew it was now or never this time. If I didn't win this time I'd never do it so I had to go out there and get the job done."

The race behind her for the other medals appeared pretty open, and it was Belgium's Loena Hendrickx and the American Alysa Liu who took silver and bronze respectively, each coming through difficult times to medal.

Pairs: Sui/Han make history at home Games

Who had the most pressure on them this Olympic season?

That title should go to the pairs team of Sui and Han of China, with the discipline being pushed back to the finish of the Olympic programme - something that hadn't happened in over 60 years. And making clear to the two-time world champs that they were meant to close the Winter Games with a gold for the Olympic hosts.

It was a toss up coming into Beijing: Sui/Han had the home status, but reigning world champions Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov had just set a new world record score to win at Europeans only weeks earlier, and their Russian teammates, veterans Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov had scored 10 points north of the Chinese's season best in Tallinn, too.

But Sui and Han had something special about their skating in Beijing, edging Tarasova/Morozov by 0.16 points in the short and then hitting a rare quadruple twist to start their "Bridge Over Troubled Water" free skate, which ended with both of them exhaling the extreme pressure they had held onto until that moment.

Their win added to China's legacy over the last two decade in pairs, including their coach Zhao Hongbo's triumph in Vancouver (with Shen Xue). Tarasova/Morozov would fall by just 0.63 points overall to win the silver, while Mishina/Galliamov never found their pre-Olympic stride in Beijing and took bronze.

Knierim/ Frazier end 43-spell for U.S.

While the Russians were sat out for Montpellier, Sui and Han opted out of the competition, as did the fifth-place team from the Games, Peng Cheng and Jin Yang of China.

That meant that sixth-place finishers Knierim/Frazier of the U.S. skated into the Sud de France Arena as favourites, along with teammates Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who had been eighth in Beijing, and the seventh-place team of Miura Riku and Kihara Ryuichi of Japan.

Much like Sakamoto grabbed her golden moment in Montpellier, so too did Knierim and Frazier, who would win going away, a 22-point victory behind two sparkling programs breaking a 43-year spell for the U.S. away from he top of the pairs podium.

Miura/Kihara won silver as Cain-Gribble suffered a scary mid-program fall that halted her and LeDuc's Worlds campaign.

Canada's Vanessa James/Eric Radford, world medallists with previous partners, won the bronze just a year after teaming up.

Pairs podium, Worlds 2022

Ice dance: Papadakis/ Cizeron go gold-gold

Who are the only skaters to claim both an Olympic and World Championships title this season?

That would be Papadakis and Cizeron, who entered into the season having not competed since before the Covid-19 pandemic, when they were runners-up to Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov at the 2020 European Championships.

But armed with two original, striking dances, the four-time world champions were unstoppable all season long, winning both of their Grand Prix assignments as Katsalapov battled a back injury that he spoke openly about.

The French would redeem their silver from 2018 by winning the Olympic title, the Russian duo claiming second and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue of the U.S. the bronze.

In Montpellier, they performed in front of crowds nearing the 9,000-seat capacity, a golden homecoming for the Olympic champions to tack a fifth world title onto their CV. Hubbell/Donohue, who had announced an imminent retirement at the outset of the season, won a fourth world medal with silver, while Madison Chock and Evan Bates claimed their world podium, and first since 2016.

Cizeron described these Worlds as "a celebration of our journey, of [the Ice Academy of Montreal], of the sport and being able to share that with our parents, our friends, our fans, was extremely special. It was much better than we could have imagined. Having a full audience here was incredible. It's an indescribable feeling to hear this many people screaming for you. We both had chills and it was really hard to hold in our tears before the performance. It was very emotional being here with the French audience."

The Montreal school finished with eight of the top ten teams at Worlds.

Stories we'll remember: Hanyu's quad Axel quest

A two-time Olympic and world champion, Hanyu remains the sport's most recognizable figure. An ankle injury hampered his competition appearances this season, in the end only able to skate at nationals and the Olympics.

But while he would pop his opening jump in the short program, his quad Axel attempt in the free skate was not only a fervent one that he came close to landing, but also one that spoke to his character: He has always sought to raise the bar in the sport - no matter what that means.

"I honestly left everything out there. I have nothing left to give," Hanyu told reporters after. "I was at top gear right from the start and I thought I rotated the Axel as well as I could. I went for it, and it's something I'll cherish forever.

He added: "This Olympics was a challenge and I gave it everything I have".

Stories we'll remember: Brown, Takahashi and more

The season wasn't without its obstacles for many skaters, including Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, the 2015 world champion who wasn't able to qualify for her debut Games on a third attempt amidst a strong Russian women's field, yet still wowed with her skating on the Grand Prix circuit.

And for Kihira Rika of Japan, who never could overcome an ankle injury - missing out on the Olympics.

Eight years after his debut at the Olympics, however, Team USA's Jason Brown shone bright in his return: Two chilling skates claimed him sixth-place in Beijing.

The fighting spirit of skaters was on display throughout the season: France's Kevin Aymoz overcame a series of injuries to qualify for the Games; while Kaitlin Hawayek worked her way back from a concussion in August to make her Olympic debut with dance partner Jean-Luc Baker.

Takahashi, the former world champion and 2010 Olympic bronze medallist, is two years into his ice dance foray, and made his Worlds debut in the discipline with partner Muramoto Kana. Finishing 16th, they said they finally felt that "we belong" among the best teams in the world.

And perhaps the most heart-warming moment of the season came at the finish of the ice dance in Beijing, when Papadakis and Cizeron were awaiting their scores to come through to secure their Olympic gold. As they did, they were surrounded by Montreal teammate Hubbell, Chock, Donohue and Bates, who wrapped them in a group hug - indeed, stronger together.

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